MPs can use various tactics to make a case for a spot—or a better spot—in cabinet, ranging from quiet competence to undercutting competitors. But most methods are likely to backfire and put them in the caucus doghouse, former ministers and senior political staff said.
“The first is the humble approach,” said Summa Strategies consultant Michele Austin, a former chief of staff to two Conservative ministers.
“This tactic emphasizes your achievements, that you are a team player… [I]t’s not passive. The person works very hard and tries to hit all the right talking points and events. If they are a current Minister, they try to get their policies and programs to Cabinet—hopefully to [priorities and planning]—as often as possible,” she said in an email.
Handling assignments well and making intelligent contributions to caucus discussions is the best way to impress the prime minister, said Hill and Knowlton Strategies consultant Don Boudria, a former Liberal minister for international cooperation and public works, in an interview.
Demonstrating strong constituency support is also important for MPs, since a cabinet post “immediately sends a signal to constituents that you may not be around quite as much,” said political consultant and former Canadian Alliance party leader and senior Conservative minister Stockwell Day.
There are several not-so-humble tactics that could, and have, been tried by MPs in the past.
“You call anyone who you think can influence the PM—including the PM—and you talk about yourself and how you are under-utilized. But it doesn't stop there. You tell people that you really should be Finance Minister, for instance. You also diss others—not just the current Finance Minister—and point out their weaknesses,” Austin said.
“I’ve seen every angle used,” Day said in an interview. “I’ve seen people try to get messages through the leader’s spouse, or chief of staff, or somebody that they sense has the ear of the leader, and I would say that in almost all cases, it is not the best thing to do.”
“The spouses of leaders know what it is to get lobbied, and in most cases they don’t really appreciate it,” he said, adding, “If a spouse is not happy with an intervention, that is not going to make the leader happy.”
A better approach, Boudria said, “is to keep your mouth shut. If you’re seen as harassing the prime minister that’s probably an excellent way to make sure you’ll never become a minister.”
Trying to “create your own buzz then deny[ing] you did it,” through the media or powerful friends, is another way MPs can push for a cabinet post, Austin said.
That can also work against them, Boudria said.
“The prime minister will see through that right away. If you’re trying to concoct a lobby instead of asking the prime minister yourself, that doesn’t help,” he said.
Day said lobbyists or former insiders sometimes mention their preferred cabinet candidates to the prime minister or his advisers during social events. Those interventions can backfire, since the prime minister may not want ministers with ties to some industries.
The prime minister knows nearly every MP wants a cabinet post, and will ultimately make decisions based on a range of factors including an MP’s competence, communication skills, constituency support, gender, ethnicity, and what region and wing of the party they represent, Day and Boudria said.
Prime ministers will often solicit the most advice when assembling their first cabinet and rely more on their own experience in each subsequent shuffle, Boudria said.
Former prime minister Jean Chrétien used caucus meetings to evaluate MPs, a former senior official in the Chrétien PMO said in an interview.
“He was very attuned to attitudes, behaviour, and comments of MPs in caucus. It wasn’t that he was looking for people who agreed with the government on every issue—it was more the people who could express themselves well,” the former official said.
“Backbench MPs who looked down their nose at being backbench MPs didn’t impress him too much,” the former official said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decisions will be made even more difficult by sagging support in the polls and a growing challenge from Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Boudria said.
“It’s the first time that the prime minister is going to make a shuffle knowing that his party is less popular. His government has battle scars, he’s been in office for a long time and there are starting to be people who are saying, ‘We don’t want this guy anymore.’”